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The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions


The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions

The world-at-large first met Sister Helen Prejean in 1993 when her
bestselling book DEAD MAN WALKING was nominated for a Pulitzer
Prize and then produced as an Oscar-winning movie by the same
title. But Sister Prejean's work with men on death row began more
than a decade before her celebrity was born.

As a spiritual adviser, Sister Prejean has accompanied five men to
their deaths. Two, she believes, were innocent: Dobie Gillis
Williams and Joseph Roger O'Dell. In her own words about THE DEATH
OF INNOCENTS: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, she
warns, "Brace yourself. These stories are going to break your

Dobie Gillis Williams had an IQ of 65 and severe arthritis. Home on
a weekend furlough in July 1984 from a minimum-security detention
facility (where he was serving for burglary), Dobie was one of
three men --- three black men --- rounded up for questioning in the
murder of Sonja Knipper. Mrs. Knipper, her husband claimed, was
murdered in her home by a black man; he knows this because she
shouted from the bathroom, "A black man is killing me." Dobie was
accused of squeezing through a tiny window and stabbing Mrs.
Knipper multiple times. He was tried and within a week was
sentenced to death, despite monumental problems in forensic

Joseph O'Dell was arrested for the murder and rape of Helen
Schartner in 1985. Prosecuters convinced the jury that O'Dell, a
Caucasian male with a checkered past, abducted Helen outside a
lounge, raped her, bludgeoned her to death, and then dumped her in
an empty field. Again, evidence aside, O'Dell was sentenced in six
quick weeks to death.

Sister Prejean writes of these two cases, "The tragic truth is that
you as a reader of this book have access to truths about forensic
evidence, eyewitnesses, and prosecutorial maneuvers that Dobie's
and Joseph's jurors never heard." According to the good nun, scant
circumstantial evidence unveiled in the courtrooms didn't hold a
candle to the facts uncovered after the trials (and some before the
trials!), while the men waited on death row for their ultimate
demise. Sister Prejean spells out in no uncertain terms the
evidence that would have saved Dobie and Joseph. But attempts to
bring new evidence to light failed, and both men were wrongfully

penalty issue under a magnifying glass. Prejean reminds us that
"Recently we have been witness to astounding admissions of error by
state and federal courts forced to free 116 wrongly convicted
people from death row since 1973, and the numbers keep growing."
She reminds us that the law is fallible, and so are the humans who
regulate it. THE DEATH OF INNOCENTS is thought-provoking and
thoughtfully written. I'd expect nothing less from Sister Prejean,
who has not only devoted the last 20 years to inmates on death row
but also to educating proponents of both sides of the death penalty


Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on December 29, 2010

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions
by Sister Helen Prejean

  • Publication Date: December 28, 2004
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0679440569
  • ISBN-13: 9780679440567